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4.0 out of 5 stars How Welsh allegiance switched from Rome to London for ever, 25 Nov 2007
Nicholas Casley (Plymouth, Devon, UK) - See all my reviews
This is a more meatier volume than Glanmor Williams's text-book review of Welsh history 1415-1642, published as part of Oxford University Press's History of Wales series. Here, Glanmor Williams concentrates solely on how the Reformation effected Wales during the reign of Henry VIII, and how its effects played out in subsequent reigns up to that of Elizabeth. Indeed, six of the fourteen chapters are concerned with the Elizabethan period, for it was only then that its success was assured.

Because this volume allows for a greater depth and a more detailed treatment of the issues, the personalities involved have a less ephemeral role. We come to know the peccadillos of various bishops, the personal views and lives of heretics, the secular ambitions of leading members of the gentry, and the poor education and living standards of most of the parish clergy. This is history come alive.

The book's opening chapter consists of a broad and useful survey of the Christian church in Wales from Roman times up to the Reformation. This is useful because one of the arguments put forward by the reformers was that the new church was a return to the old, wiping out centuries of intervening accretions. This was good news for the Welsh, for it meant that they could take pride in being the original Christians in the land, and the Tudors had Welsh origins to boot.

But the author makes clear that the real reason for the Reformation's success lies elsewhere. The appointment of Welsh bishops as opposed to English outsiders certainly helped, especially as some of those appointed were motivated less by the material pleaures of being a bishop and more by the need to raise the level of the education and the standards of the parochial clergy. But the major cause of success was the translation of the Bible and other religious works into Welsh: this more than anything else laid the foundations for future Welsh conformity to the protestant church's cause, a fact made plain by the strenuous efforts by the Catholics to translate their own tracts into Welsh to win over the people. Initially, the authorities were not too keen on promoting Welsh, and saw it as a force for disunity in the nation, but London soon realised that if it had to win the war of men's religious hearts, then the Welsh-speakers would need to learn their lines in their own tongue. Glanmor Williams argues that this more than anything else saved the Welsh language for the future, whereas Cornish, for example, died out for lack of supporting state literature and usage.

Having said all that, it is also clear how the mass of the people were not really concerned with the fighting taking place between the differing religious factions. Most simply followed the gentry in bending to the will of the prevailing religious line. The state realised this, and concentrated their energies on winning over the leading citizens and landowners of each county. Both sides guaranteed their own interests thereby: the established church was "not only a buttress to the sovereign but also a guarantee of the self-interest of the governing classes".

There were only ever a small minority of recusants in Wales, though relatively speaking, within this small number, a larger proportion went to the continent to be trained in Catholic seminaries. The author's concentration on this aspect is probably a little overdone, for we read very little of the radical puritans at the other end of the spectrum.

Although it may appear that the bulk of this worthy book is focussed on the reign of Elizabeth, five of the chapters look at Henry VIII's reign and actions. There is a chapter each on Edward VI's continuance of the Reformation, and a chapter on the Marian reaction. There are three chapters that are thematic rather than chronological, and they all appear within the Elizabethan section of the book. These three chapters focus on the establishment of the church in Wales - the effects both on the clergy and on the laity - and the translation of the Bible into Welsh.

Overall, this is a fascinating insight into how the Reformation had its effects on a distinctive part of the British nation. There were complicating factors - a divided population, openness to Irish influences, an innate conservatism, a lack of a strong urban tradition, and a different language - that made the story of the Reformation's success different in Wales from elsewhere. This book tells that story well.

There is one minor quibble: a map would have been helpful in delineating the boundaries of the four Welsh dioceses.
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